The following article was first published in Proletarian Revolution No. 63 (Fall 2001).
New York City’s labor movement was rocked by a major upheaval last December, when the membership of TWU Local 100 kicked out the entrenched bureaucratic machine led by Willie James. New Directions (ND), the long-standing oppositional caucus which claims to be a militant “rank-and-file” group decisively defeated the old guard, taking control of the local’s Executive Board and most key positions.
ND presidential candidate Roger Toussaint won around 60 percent of the vote. He easily beat the faltering James gang, which had split between James and his vice-president, Eddie Melendez, who ran with the backing of Sonny Hall, the TWU’s international president and former head of Local 100.
In their overwhelming vote for New Directions, workers repudiated Hall, James and the sellout contract negotiated in December 1999. (See Proletarian Revolution No. 60.) The massive near-strike movement of November-December 1999 had shown the workers’ ability to mobilize against their bosses, Mayor Giuliani and the other capitalist politicians, the cops and the courts. All were clearly terrified that the city would be shut down. The workers’ struggle was derailed by the union bureaucracy, which pushed through a contract whose uglier provisions have become even more apparent with time. Added to this was the members’ disgust at the looting of dues money under the James regime.
Ironically, New Directions rose to power on the basis of an uprising it failed to lead. As we documented in PR 60, ND refused to take the lead and carry out the will of the membership for a strike. At the decisive moment, after workers unanimously voted to strike in a tumultuous mass meeting, ND handed the initiative back to the Executive Board, which they knew would ignore the vote. What it couldn’t win openly at the membership meeting New Directions accomplished by duplicity afterward. Thus the strike movement was strangled.
The strike motion had been made by a supporter of the League for the Revolutionary Party (LRP). We had argued and fought for a strike for a long time, in counterposition to ND. As the contract vote approached, our pro-strike stance became very popular, and workers began taking our views more seriously. Years of anti-communist suspicion began to fade. However, we and other militants were still far too weak to push aside both the James and ND misleaders and lead workers in carrying out the strike they wanted.
Despite ND’s betrayal, its reputation as the strong and militant opposition was markedly inflated after the event, partly because Giuliani, Hall and James scapegoated ND as strike-happy militants, even communists. And even though their strike movement was aborted, transit workers had a sense of having driven the bosses to the wall. So even though ND had stabbed the strike vote in the back and was running a low-key campaign, its electoral victory was nevertheless a product of the fighting movement. Attacks on ND for being strike-happy hadn’t turned off workers as in the past but instead had cemented their support for the Toussaint slate.
This situation posed the classic challenge for revolutionaries: how to help our fellow workers become conscious of their own power and break their illusions in the betraying leaders. For this we used the tactic of “critical support.” (See the article Revolutionary vs. Reformist Methods in PR63.) Our goal was both to promote the struggle and to win other advanced workers to see the need for a genuine anti-capitalist – that is, revolutionary – leadership.
With New Directions’ victory, these tasks have taken on added urgency. In the face of unrelenting attacks by the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) bosses, workers are looking for militant leadership. Toussaint has retained some of his image by staging limited mobilizations, including a one-day strike of a private bus line that won a partial victory. He has to show enough clout to slow down the MTA’s demands for more concessions, while avoiding the direct confrontation he fears.
As one path to temper the workers’ militancy, Toussaint is urging them to rely upon “friends of labor,” the politicians of the capitalist Democratic Party. A former supporter of the now-defunct Marxist-Leninist Party, Toussaint once opposed the pro-capitalist political maneuvers of the union bureaucrats. Now in charge of the union, he features Democratic politicians on every possible platform – above all the four Democratic primary candidates for Mayor. In exchange, he hopes that the winner will give him some crumbs.
To this end, Toussaint ignores the fact that all four bourgeois hacks defend New York State’s Taylor Law, which forbids transit and all other public workers from striking. They all also support workfare policies initiated by Giuliani, which eliminated union jobs and hired welfare recipients at below-minimum wages. Toussaint is now talking about turning Local 100 into a Democratic Party bastion, following the model of Dennis Rivera in the hospital workers’ union, Local 1199.
At the same time, Toussaint is beginning to construct a new bureaucratic machine designed to undermine rebelliousness. The new leadership has already appointed some elected Executive Board members to salaried staff positions, hoping to ensure their loyalty. When the previous bureaucratic regimes appointed Board members to such positions, the appointees at least had to resign. Not so with the new brass.
Toussaint is also building a network of stewards and training them as a buffer in the local between his regime and the members. Although he needs the support of elements of the previous corrupt machine, it would be suicide for him to rely upon them. He needs a body which is trusted by the militant section of the membership but which can be fashioned into an instrument loyal to his regime. Ostensibly the new stewards are supposed to defend workers, but Toussaint also aims to use them to discipline the ranks and police their protest actions. He has hired Eddie Kaye, a veteran union hack who was a major force in maintaining 1199 bureaucracy. Nevertheless, not only union careerists but many good militants who want to fight the bosses have joined the program. It is still up for grabs whether Toussaint and Kaye can turn them into the bureaucratic weapon they want.
Toussaint came to power on the crest of a massive struggle and high expectations, which he must still cater to. His emerging bureaucracy is on a collision course with its base of supporters in the Local 100 membership. These workers still expect a fighting response to the MTA’s continued assault. Given their experience, transit workers see no alternative to supporting the Democrats but in reality expect they’ll get only minor help.
Using provisions in the contract negotiated by the James leadership, the MTA has substantially reduced its funding of the local’s Health Benefit Trust (HBT). This move threatens to bankrupt the HBT in the near future and cut off benefits to transit workers. The MTA’s strategy is to hold the health of the union members and their families hostage until the union agrees to productivity givebacks and speed-up. Further, they are stepping up “plantation justice,” the use of discipline and drug-screening to intimidate members.
After months of wavering, Toussaint called a protest rally on March 28 at which 8000 angry workers turned up. Despite the “friends of labor” on stage, the rally showed the will of workers to fight to defend their health benefits. Placards prepared by the LRP reading “No Health Fund, No Work! Prepare to Strike” were snatched up by the hundreds. Our Revolutionary Transit Worker (RTW) bulletins with the same headline were enthusiastically grabbed up by thousands of workers. RTW emphasized the need for an immediate general membership meeting to launch the struggle.
But Toussaint & Co. offered only rhetoric and hot-air speeches from the Democratic pols. Any half-decent union leadership would have used the rally to threaten the MTA with more powerful actions if it didn’t back down. Toussaint made clear that he did not favor preparing to strike. Soon after the rally, he talked about compromise, hinting that givebacks could be traded.
According to the civil-service newspaper, the Chief (April 6), Toussaint said “I think there are lots of other ways for us to [get HBT funding] within the Taylor Law, whether it’s legal action, member mobilization or educating the community and the riders.” This was a feeler aimed at the bosses, indicating that he was ready to make deals at the expense of the ranks in order to avoid a struggle. Shortly after the March rally, according to the Chief, Toussaint “suggested that favorable agreements could be made on ... a large-scale apprentice program or a plan to introduce additional technological advances.” These are on the MTA’s current wish-list of takebacks: to get journeyman’s labor from lower-paid apprentices and eliminate jobs.
Toussaint, of course, didn’t propose any such concessions at the mass rally. It is interesting that under the new “rank-and-file” leadership, workers still have to rely on outside sources to learn what their own union’s strategy really is.
At the Joint Executive Board meeting of May 19, Toussaint admitted that he had failed to follow up on the March 28 rally. He grimaced when it was pointed out that RTW had already made that point. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that Toussaint has learned from his failure.
Emboldened by Toussaint’s willingness to compromise without a fight, management has refused to restore secure funding for the HBT and continues to insist on productivity givebacks, job speed-ups and co-pays. To make their contempt for the TWU clear, the MTA is going ahead with its plan to eliminate 237 station agent jobs and close token booths. Supporters and allies of the LRP put forward motions for a general membership meeting to forge a fighting strategy, but since the last mass membership meeting in December 1999 had defied the leadership and voted to strike, Toussaint had good reason to be wary of another.
With no visible progress, Toussaint finally had to call for a second demonstration on June 20. About 2000 workers attended, far fewer and less spirited than in March. Again there was only more hoopla and Democrat bullshit.
At the rally, LRP supporters’ heckling of Toussaint and the Democrats produced discomfort on the podium. Other workers joined us when we began chants of “Taylor Law! Taylor Law!“ Then Toussaint’s lieutenant Ed Watts, the local’s Secretary-Treasurer, jumped to the microphone to counter with “Roger! Roger! Roger!“ to drown us out and get workers to switch chants. The conflicting chants shows that workers clearly wanted to oppose the Taylor Law but were not yet prepared to embarrass their new leadership. Yet many asked for the latest issue of Revolutionary Transit Worker by name.
While transit workers still wanted to fight, most militants retained their belief that Toussaint would lead a struggle. But not hearing any plan from him to mobilize for future action, they do not yet see how to proceed. Extensive discussions on the job and at the rally indicate that this mood is widespread in the local.
Unfortunately, some of the new stewards who acted as marshals seemed to blame the membership for the poor turnout at the rally. That was a further step in the process of bureaucratizing the stewards’ network.
His record so far suggests that Toussaint’s strategy is to string out the union’s response to the HBT bloodletting, hoping that the fund will survive until the election produces a Democratic mayor. Then, as a quid pro quo for his support, he expects that City Hall will force the MTA to reinvigorate the health benefits.
As we write, Toussaint and his buddies have suspended union activity for the summer and have scheduled a membership meeting for September 29. That date is conveniently right after the Democratic Party primary; it allows Toussaint to turn what should be a membership discussion and decision-making meeting into a campaign rally for the mayoral candidate. Militants must fight any such move. The strategy of avoiding confrontation with the transit bosses and hoping that the Democrats will do the union’s job for it is doomed to fail.
Toussaint’s turn away from his past fighting pose has opened him up to criticism from his factional opponents in New Directions itself. There are two main currents in ND, which has been falling into a state of decomposition since its electoral victory. One is Toussaint’s developing machine, still based largely in the Track Division; the other is led by Executive Board members Tim Schermerhorn and Steve Downs and a few others close to the “socialist” Solidarity organization.
In the past, Toussaint had posed as a militant critic of the former Downs/Schermerhorn ND leadership. On this basis he was able to take the helm of ND and replace Schermerhorn as ND’s presidential candidate. But beginning with the election, these roles seem to have reversed. As Toussaint transforms himself into an out-and-out bureaucrat, ND opponents have hesitantly begun to criticize him for not being militant enough and not relying on the rank and file.
In the February issue of Labor Notes, the national magazine for trade union reformers, Downs accused the Toussaint leadership of “toning down” ND’s “militant message.” Of course, they didn’t accuse Roger by name in order to avoid an open conflict, but their target was clear:
Ironically, the near certainty of victory in 2000 led many in New Directions to urge that the militant message be toned down just to be safe. ... Most of the literature for the local-wide campaign had a bland, generic “good-unionism” feel to it. ... It seemed to say that the key to change was electing the right leaders rather than an active membership.
Downs’ criticism of Toussaint was the height of hypocrisy. Under the leadership of Schermerhorn and Downs, ND long ago turned its back on a perspective of mass struggle, preferring to focus on getting elected. Its paper, Hell on Wheels, had become less militant-sounding over time. Many elections ago, ND minimized any mention in their campaign material of the need to prepare to strike. Even when there was massive pro-strike sentiment during the 1999 contract negotiations, ND carefully avoided arguing for a strike.
The dispute in New Directions today is really an argument over the spoils of victory. Apparently Downs and other long-time leaders are worried that Toussaint is creating a new bureaucratic machine loyal to himself, not to ND. They have good reason. Now that Toussaint and his associates have replaced the James machine, they have less and less use for ND and even its watered-down rank-and-file reputation. Toussaint’s friends – including union staffers – stacked an ND meeting and passed a quorum motion which will make it hard for the group even to meet again unless he goes along. Nevertheless, the dissidents have attempted to avoid an open fight.
Toussaint’s buddies have also tried to restrict Eric Josephson, an elected Vice-Chair of the Track Division and well known as a supporter of the LRP, from distributing RTW. Then in May, Toussaint’s adherents in the Track Division leadership removed Josephson from released-time work (for the union, but paid for by the MTA) on the ludicrous grounds that he allegedly backed down from a confrontation with a boss. Even his loudest opponents, and certainly the bosses, know that he has been unrelenting in fighting management at every turn. That is why supervisors have tried to discipline him so often!
Undoubtedly the LRP is a real irritant to the emerging apparatus. But Josephson was removed to test the waters for an attack on the ND dissidents. The new regime expected that the Schermerhorn-Downs types, who have difficulty defending themselves, would not fight for Josephson, an open revolutionary.
The showdown came in June, when Toussaint & Co. ran for delegates to the TWU International Convention – not under the New Directions banner but as the “Unity” slate. In the Car Equipment Department, Naomi Allen, Vice-Chair for Car Inspectors and long-time ND leader, was running on a “Hell on Wheels” slate. Toussaint’s friends forced her off the ballot, condemned her slate and then removed her from her elected released-time position. The charges that she forged the signatures of her own running mates were blatant nonsense. Allen at first went along, dissolving her own slate and thereby depriving the members of her division of a contested vote. That didn’t stop Toussaint’s crew from bringing formal charges against her.
The ND opposition grumbled when Toussaint threw down this gauntlet and tried its best to avert an open collision. But when the Chief (July 6) persistently questioned Toussaint, he had to acknowledge his agreement with his allies’ moves. He also denounced Downs for “betraying” the New Directions caucus. Thus Toussaint has gone public with the split. Allen lashed back, and the other dissidents have had to openly argue against the machine’s charges while deploring that the squabble has been taken “outside New Directions meetings.” The Chief summed up that “New Directions members who also cherish the group’s independence from the union’s officers admit they have been outmaneuvered by Mr. Toussaint.”
Despite the growing differences between Toussaint’s crew and the old ND leadership, they still agree on important issues. They remain in favor of using the courts to settle union disputes and otherwise inviting the capitalists’ state to intervene in the workers’ organizations. And although there are genuine fighters attracted to the more militant-sounding wing, the dissident leaders do not represent workers’ basic interests any more than do Toussaint & Co.
Just as Toussaint doesn’t present his compromising strategy in the union’s press where the workers could form their own judgment, his ND opponents have so far tried to avoid bringing their differences before the membership. So much for “union democracy” and “rank-and-filism”! We demand that they stand up against the new bureaucratism and defend Allen, Josephson and themselves inside the union. Josephson has already launched his defense and supported Allen’s, starting with a letter published in the Chief (July 20).
Revolutionaries will challenge the dissident leaders to openly defend the interests of transit workers as a whole. Since they claim to be militant over real issues like speed-up, jobs, health care and the Taylor Law, let them mobilize their followers. We warn that if such a mobilization doesn’t happen, workers can again become demoralized.
In challenging the ND dissidents, we have absolutely no illusions that they will act like the militants that they claim to be, let alone real socialists. Our putting them on the spot is necessary because a number of advanced workers who are in the process of seeing through Toussaint still believe in the old ND leaders. In struggle, we believe they will see that we are right about both old and new New Directions.
We also face the fact that most militants, including those who lean toward the old ND leadership, have not given up hope that Toussaint will deliver significant benefits. We know that the significant growth in the number of workers subscribing to RTW and asking for bundles to distribute is only partly due to interest in the revolutionary alternative, or even in flat-out militant opposition to Toussaint. At this time it more reflects a desire for truthful information and a discussion of how to fight the MTA, neither of which is available from any other source in the local. Nevertheless, we have taken a solid first step in helping raise consciousness. We hope to convince our widening audience that a fighting communist working-class leadership is the only answer for the TWU and for society as a whole. That leadership can only be built by workers themselves; nobody else can do it for us.
The situation in New York transit should be a lesson to all workers about the fraud of the rank-and-filist approach put forward by Solidarity, Labor Notes and much of what passes for a socialist left today. The claim that a genuine anti-bureaucratic struggle can take place without an open fight for a revolutionary leadership and program inevitably betrays the workers’ struggles.
Bureaucracy isn’t just the nasty way that rotten people rule in the unions. It is the only way trade union leaders can act when they function as brokers for the sale of labor power to the bosses. The only non-bureaucratic leadership is one that has the support of the members because the membership knows they won’t simply act within the capitalist bargaining framework but will employ the real might of our class. That is, only a revolutionary leadership that has won the confidence of its base can fundamentally defeat bureaucratism. In contrast, the “realistic” rank-and-filism of the New Directions types just serves to train new generations of labor bureaucrats. The renewed bureaucratization of TWU Local 100 following the election of Roger Toussaint and ND represents only one more chapter in a long line of similar betrayals.
We will use every principled means at our disposal to expose and defeat the emerging bureaucracy in Local 100 in order to unify the ranks in the face of MTA attacks. Transit workers are strong enough not only to defend their past gains – their strike could ignite a general strike of all municipal workers, which could cripple both City Hall and Wall Street, the imperialist capital of the nation and the world. That is the potential power of TWU Local 100 if it were unchained.